Is TV news making more mistakes? Or are they just more obvious?
Almost all of the major national news organizations have made high-profile mistakes in recent months: CNN and Fox News initially misreported the Supreme Court decision on Obamacare. ABC News erroneously linked the Colorado shootings to a member of the Tea Party movement. And NBC edited the Trayvon Martin phone call in a highly misleading way.
There are at least two possibilities at work, both involving the crush of tweeted, Tumblr'd and wall-posted information that besieges anyone with access to a laptop or a nice phone.
One: The old-school, TV elite are making more mistakes because of the pressure of competing not just with each other, but with the unwashed, unedited and un-vetted online masses breaking stories from their parents' attics.
Two: Traditional journalists are making the same number of mistakes they always have. But the same motley confederation competing with them to break news is also holding them more accountable than ever before. That, fans of accuracy would agree, would be a good thing.
It could be a combination of both. And it remains to be seen whether that will lead to a golden age of accountability in which everyone is kept honest, or an Idiocracy in which people throw up their hands and refuse to believe anything.
Once the 24-hour news cycle made newspapers look hopelessly stodgy. Then online news sources started making TV look slow. And now Twitter is doing the same to websites. There are more sources of news than ever. But many of the news outlets with the most experience in sorting the factual from the inaccurate are strapped for time and resources, thanks to staff cutbacks across the field of journalism.
There's also no hard line between TV and online, obviously: Every network uses social media to stay in touch with viewers, promote stories and track down sources. But given the mainstream draw of the top news TV outlets, they are generally held to higher expectations than smaller operations. And their reach makes their errors more obvious.
It's easy to say they need to act like grown-ups — and recognize that it's more important to get it right than to get it first. But to say that is to minimize the constant pressure of a news environment in which a blogger can post, tweet and mass email a piece of breaking news in the time it takes a traditional news anchor to tie his tie.
"There's just a lot more on the air now, and the pressure to get there first is considerable," said Tom Brokaw, one of the best of those traditional anchors, speaking to TheWrap during a recent Television Critics Association panel.
Brokaw said mistakes have always been a part of journalism, and that when he looks lately at the corrections section of a given newspaper, "It doesn't seem to be getting any smaller."
"The important part about making a mistake in journalism is catching it quickly, acknowledging it, and apologizing and moving on," he said.
The Internet is gleefully happy to help that process along, as CNN Worldwide managing editor Mark Whitaker noted in an interview last month. Any error, he said, is instantly posted across several platforms.
Mistakes — and often facts, because, well, people are crazy — bring instant online demands for corrections, apologies and firings.
Two of those repercussions occurred in the case of ABC News reporter Brian Ross' Tea Party mistake, when he noted that a man with the same name as the suspected Colorado shooter had a page on a Tea Party website. Ross apologized and has kept his job.
One of the great frustrations of traditional journalists is that independent entities can share stories or mere speculation without going through any standards and practices. But so, sometimes, do TV journalists.
That's exactly what happened with Ross, who was speaking extemporaneously and apparently didn't vet his information through proper channels before sharing it live on the air.
ABC News President Ben Sherwood said after another recent TCA panel that Ross didn't follow network procedures.
"In general, I think that what we do is we typically put on the air what we confirm and know to be true and that [which] is reportable," he said. "This is an instance where clearly — just watch it — clearly Brian said we have something, we don't know if it's the same guy — but there is a connection between a guy of this name and this particular organization."
He added: "We don't do that."
Ross, in other words, did what millions of people do every day on Twitter: Post information without checking with an editor, a lawyer or anyone else. The faster the news breaks, the greater the risk of mistakes, as CNN and Fox News learned with their Obamacare fumbles.
CNN, beset by recent ratings woes, prides itself on fast and accurate breaking news. Whitaker said last month that CNN was reviewing its entire process because of the error.
As the Associated Press documented, CNN reported on the morning of the decision that the Supreme Court had struck down the health care law's individual mandate, but expressed doubt five minutes later, and two minutes later corrected itself.
Fox News also reported that the individual mandate had been found unconstitutional, but within two minutes corrected itself. Anchor Megyn Kelly asked for the removal of an inaccurate onscreen headline.
Michael Clemente, Fox's executive vice president of news and editorial, said in a statement that the network reported "the news as it happened," noting that it had accurately reported that the mandate was found unconstitutional under the commerce clause. But both CNN and Fox initially missed the fact that it was found constitutional under Congress' right to tax.
CBS said it avoided the error by refusing to rush to judgment or listen to chatter from outside its newsroom — even from other networks.
"CBS This Morning" executive producer Chris Licht said during a TCA panel that CBS News Chairman Jeff Fager and President David Rhodes never call him asking, "'Why don't you have this thing ABC has?"
Rhodes jumped on the setup: "Because it's probably not true," he quipped.
But what CBS considers a more cautious approach hasn't helped it beat NBC or ABC in ratings: It lags both networks in its morning and evening news programs. On Sundays, CBS's "Face the Nation" is tied with NBC's "Meet the Press" for the highest ratings in the key demo and is just behind NBC in total viewers.
And not every aspect of CBS's operation is as sewn up as "CBS This Morning" aims to be. CBS fired a sports blogger in January after he reported Joe Paterno's death hours before the coach's family said he actually died. The producer was following a report by a Penn State student publication. Many news outlets — including TheWrap — picked up on the CBS death report, crediting the network.
NBC News, meanwhile, fired a producer in April after the network aired a misleading clip of a 911 call in the Trayvon Martin shooting. The edit made it appear that gunman George Zimmerman had said, unprompted, that Martin was black. In fact, he had only identified Martin's race when the dispatcher asked for a description.
Would you believe the Internet noticed?